Writers, how to do nothing

Writers, how to do nothing (text over image of a field of flowers)
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Sometimes, the best way to accomplish something is by doing nothing.

This is not going to be your typical writing advice post.

I have not encountered a single person since the start of this pandemic that has not expressed feeling overwhelm at some point over the last few months. We worked, or we didn’t. We homeschooled kids, or we didn’t. We cared for others, or we didn’t. Whether the pandemic added exponentially to our daily workloads or stripped them down to an emptiness we had never before experienced, things changed overnight. The pandemic’s effects rippled into every aspect of life.

Obviously, it has impacted our writing lives, too. We have offered advice on how to avoid falling into a writing rut or feeling isolated, how to take up more space, why to set more small goals than big ones, and how to understand what inspires you—all so you can write when and how and what you want to write. And for what? If you are crossing all your tasks off your list at breakneck speed but are still stressed out, what is the point of it all?

I do not mean to suggest that your works-in-progress, your word counts, your stories and voices, the writing communities to which you are accountable, and your goals are not important. They are. But not at the expense of your well-being.

And I do not want to suggest that you are or should be overwhelmed if you aren’t (though please share your coping strategies with us)!

What I am here to tell you is that if you spend some quality time staring at the wall, or the stars, or a field of flowers, with absolutely no agenda or motive other than to exist with your breath and your senses, you will be a happier human and yes, a better writer for it.

Doing nothing allows us to live in the present. Doing nothing gives us time to notice, process, and feel, without distraction. Doing nothing can make our periods of doing all the somethings more—I will not say productive, I won’t!—fulfilling.

Do nothing, writer. That’s it. That’s the whole bit of advice. If you are feeling overwhelmed, if you are down on yourself for not accomplishing what you think you should be right now, if you are obsessed with your own productivity instead of self-care, then a good session of nothing is in order.

And because I understand that some of us have literally no idea how to do nothing (trust me, I understand), here it is:

How to do nothing: A 10-step primer

1. Sit outside in a place where you cannot see anything human-made. No billboards, no street lights, no buildings, no cars. Nothing = no thing(s). Make your view one of nature only, even if you are not a nature lover. This exercise is about removing anything industrial, anything that is going to make you think I should be working right now.

2. Observe. Breathe. Breathe some more.

3. Do not make to-do lists in your head while you sit.

4. Do not talk yourself into turning this sitting session into a walk to meet your daily steps goal.

5. Do not journal about your nothing-doing. At least not yet.

6. Do not analyze your nothing-doing, or wonder if you are not-doing correctly or efficiently.

7. Do not brainstorm “acceptable” responses to the inevitable question of “What did you do today?” from family and friends.

8. Do not allow guilt over the unwritten words (or unwashed dishes, or uncooked dinner, or unmowed lawn, etc.) to creep in. Breathe past the guilt.

9. Do not get up yet. Observe and breathe some more.

10. Do not move beyond your five senses, here, in this moment. Stay.

When it is time to get up, to do again, you will know.

The more you do this nothing, the more obvious the benefits will be. In a traditional job, one of our “benefits” might be paid vacation time. The rationale is that voluntary, scheduled time off allows us to recharge. If periodic time away did not have the potential to make us more productive workers, then you can bet most companies would not offer vacation time.

As a writer, you are your own boss. You set your goals; you meet those goals, or you don’t. And you decide what happens when you feel overwhelmed. Keep doing…or don’t.

When it is time to take up your pen again, you will know. 

The Tao does nothing,
but leaves nothing undone.

-Lao Tzu

Feeling overwhelmed? Obsessed with productivity? How do you cope? Will you try doing nothing? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: The many challenges of writing life maintenance (and how to balance them all)

Achieve writing clarity with meditation basics

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